Running Notes, pt. 1

To make good use of my time I’ve been running (jogging? straining my hip flexors?) in a park near the high school where my 15yo homeschooler takes a Chinese class. I was thinking about starting a running or fitness blog, the way it seems briefly logical to start a blog to accompany any new endeavor these days.

In the end, I decided not to because the potential for feeling self-conscious or embarrassed seemed too high. I thought photos would make me feel silly, and my slow times and sad intervals would make me look stupid. The first day I added some slow jogging intervals to my walks, I had to force myself to keep bouncing slightly at my snail’s pace every time another Athleta-clad cougar—the kind for whom the phrase “keeping it tight” is not used ironically–came around the corner.

Little did I suspect that humiliation would look more like scraped shins, muddy knees, and several frantic text messages to my husband and daughter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When telling a story, going from beginning to end is not always the clearest route. If this story were a film it would start with me standing outside the shower, finding one twig, then another, then a third, while shaking the ponytail out of my hair. It would show my naked feet, then calves, while I hosed off dirt – and please God not poison ivy – and discovered likely future bruises. The scene would end as I discovered new tender spots and red scratches on my forearms – “Ouch!”

Only then would the story cut back to me running through a wooded park with the dawning realization that the nearest bathroom might not be near enough. A shot of my eyes shifting back and forth, realizing that what had looked earlier like dense brush and thick stands of trees was in fact a sparse collection of reedy branches and fallen logs. A sigh of frustration mingled with the sound of the streams that run under the picturesque bridges of my beautiful walking path. A shortening stride, a determined grimace, and finally, a furtive exploratory dash into a bank of small trees.

But no. I couldn’t do it. Thirty minutes til I’d be at a bathroom, tops. No problem. I emerged from the trees just as an older lady walked past, and I wondered how I looked with my t-shirt full of holes and my ill-fitting fanny pack, clambering out of the woods like an escaped convict. I moved quickly to get ahead of her.

I had started back towards my car at this point, but there was still a ways to go, and moving quickly seemed less and less an option. Finally, I saw my salvation. No, not a bathroom. A turnstile entrance into the nature center part of the park, sure to be less traveled than my running path.

The trees were not much thicker there, but the odds of avoiding another person were in my favor. I crawled back through thick brush and found a clump of thin trunks that might provide some privacy. I tossed my fanny pack aside, took a deep breath and – no. No. I had gone at least 30 years without, well, going in the great outdoors, and I would not break that streak now.

I made my way back to the path, tripping over a fallen tree and pulling a dead branch pointy end first into my chest. Unfortunately, by the time I had run this obstacle course, it was clear I was going to be peeing in that park, on purpose or otherwise. Back into the brush I went, looking for the thickest tree trunk, glancing quickly at the ground cover and thinking “Leaves of three, let it be?” Once more I tossed aside the fanny pack and braced myself for the sense of burning shame that comes only from popping a squat in a park in the middle of one of the Twin Cities’ toniest suburbs.

Reader, I saw a man about a horse. I spent a penny. I came forth from the copse victorious, empowered.

As any writer knows, the walk/run back the car was filled with ruminations on just how this narrative would flow when I got home. It would be the story of a 40-ish woman who found freedom on the trail and said yes to taking her pants off outdoors. Until I got to my car and discovered that my keys had fallen out of the fanny pack.

I’ll spare you that part of the adventure, though it involved me looking once again for likely makeshift outhouses until I gave up and only discovered my keys on the way back. By then my story of whimsical liberation had become the tragically familiar tale of an almost 45-year-old woman for whom perimenopause meant both poorly timed urgency and misplaced keys.

Cut to sweaty pick-up of daughter, an hour late. A shot of an inappropriately amused husband shaking his head. “Did you tell your co-workers that your wife peed in the woods and lost her car keys?” A long, smirking pause. “I’m not going to tell you what I told my co-workers.”

Fade out on a 40-something woman running along a wooded path in bright blue shoes and new fanny pack with an excellent zipper.

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Sister, Sister

Change is coming in our house, but we’ve managed to blithely meander through most of the summer either too busy or too relaxed to think about it. But it crept in a little today.

This is one week when neither kid has a camp, a class, a veritable summer school self imposed by repeatedly ignoring spring deadlines (but I’m not bitter). We aren’t going anywhere, and no one is visiting. Just a week to chill together.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Excited by the prospect, 11yo Victoria tries to initiate activities with her older sister, but 15yo Violet wants to read, write music, text friends, and draw. Kinda solitary activities.

So Victoria finally says, tentatively, during lunch, “We could role play.”

And Violet says, calling out from her reading position on the couch, “Nah, I think I’m too old for that.”

Those of us still sitting at the table are silenced, and a gloom settles over the cold fried chicken.

We eat without speaking, deep in both nostalgia and clouded projections of the future. I don’t know what Victoria is thinking, but it feels like we’ve all taken a step that we can’t take back. “Role playing”—pretend games, living utterly in a fantasy world for days at a time, whatever you want to call it—was the basic stuff of my kids’ childhood, but especially Violet. There were times at the dinner table when she seemed literally unable to stop, to come back to Earth and be herself, whoever that was. I suspect that from ages 7 to 9 she spoke in a British accent more than half the time.

ABC -- Always Be in Character

ABC — Always Be in Character

If you Google around you’ll see that drama and pretend play are supposed to peak at about 5 years, but I’d say for Violet it was more like 12. I know what’s “normal” because her fantasy realms and invented characters and identities were so real to her I took to books and Dr. Internet to see if there was something wrong.

Though I also remembered that my little sister, possibly into the double digits, wanted to be a bunny when she grew up. Maybe it’s hereditary.

By age 14 it had cooled down, but it had definitely not gone away. Still, it’s a little harder to role play when your friends are 14. And now, it may be done. This seems normal and healthy to me—especially knowing it is all channeled into notebook upon notebook of character sketches and story ideas. And there’s always D & D. I can sigh and move on, but I notice Victoria across the table–nearly under the table–with a dark expression on her face.

We go outside to talk, and she starts to sob in her open, earnest way. Never one to hide her face or swallow tears, she lets her feelings gush forth like a fire hose. I brace for it, and she tells me that she knows that her older sister is only going to keep growing up and away. Three more years and she may be gone. She leans forward in the patio chair and tells me wide-eyed that she’s afraid she’s losing her sister.

One year ago: still not to old to go everywhere in partial costume

One year ago: still not too old to go everywhere in partial costume

I’m stuck. I can only tell her the truth. First, I didn’t grow up living with my siblings every day, so I can’t honestly say I know what she’s going through. But more than that, I can’t tell her she’s wrong. I tell her about adult friends of ours who remain very close to sisters and brothers, I tell her that siblings don’t have to see each other frequently or even talk frequently to stay one of the most important people in each other’s lives. I make the mistake of starting to say that I too feel sad when I think about my girls growing up, but this threatens to transform the mild weepiness I feel watching my girl cry into big, ugly, personal tears. I stop.

Thankfully, I don’t say what is on the tip of my tongue, which is, “You sure gotta lotta nerve, girl.” Victoria is the one leaving us first, after all, to go to school.

Girl with nerve -- Exhibit A

Girl with nerve — Exhibit A

We’ve been homeschooling for nine years. My first homeschooling blog, on homeschool blogger, is so old it’s disappeared. But my 11yo wants to try something new, admittedly in part because the 15yo is growing up and away. Homechool is less of a family venture than it used to be, and more of a solitary pursuit, and that’s a change that hasn’t been sitting well with my socially oriented girl.

We’re all mostly excited for her. To tell the truth, I’m mostly excited for me, too. Mostly, I am looking forward to giving a little TLC to my own work. Mostly, I’m happy to step back from the co-ops and playdates, despite the great people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. And mostly I am not letting myself think too hard about the rest of it: the guilt over not sticking with it (we could always come back!), the worry that middle school is the worst time to dive in to classroom-based education, the suspicion that were she given to a more extraverted family she’d be a natural-born unschooler, the certainty that no public school language arts program could ever satisfy me.

Victoria, on the other hand, is already thinking about planning a dance and having a party for all the new friends she’s going to make. Like I said, she’s sure gotta lotta nerve. Good for her.

Our conversation ends with Victoria taking a deep breath and saying to herself confidently, “I know we’ll always be friends,” before going inside to slice more watermelon. She sighs and moves on, and I try to clear the sadness now shading my face as I follow her, always just a little further behind.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We'll always be together just like this.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We’ll always be together just like this.

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The Sisterhood and My Traveling Pants; or, LTYM 2014

Many people have asked me about my experience reading for Listen To Your Mother – Twin Cities. This is my answer. It is not short.

Side note: I wrote most of it before hearing that Maya Angelou died today, but as the Internet filled with quotations I found this one especially apt: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

The Preparation

I did not practice my piece out loud alone, ever. In fact, even before my audition the only time I read it aloud was on a bench outside the audition venue, where it was about 35 degrees. Why I bother to wear makeup when any exposure to the elements turns me a blotchy pink remains a mystery.

I rehearsed only at rehearsals, briefly wishing I had honed my delivery better before choosing to pat myself on the back for not overthinking it.

I didn’t even obsess about my clothes. For a while I entertained the idea of buying something new, but fortunately I remembered that shopping for new clothes is at least as likely to be depressing as it is to be fun. Better to stick with the familiar: simple top, black pants. I had not seen the black pants in a few months, but no matter, they would materialize eventually. Wash enough clothes, and slowly they would rise to the top of laundry heap. Put it out of my mind.

Until the day before, when I still could not find my pants. Suddenly my pants and their absence were no longer a sign of my devil-may-care insouciance. My pants became the emblem of my unpreparedness for this event, if not for life in general. My inability to rein in or track down a single pair of black cotton-rayon blend pants was starting to represent the folly of the whole enterprise: exposing myself, quite possibly revealing that the emperor has no clothes.

After the drama these pants caused on my Facebook wall for days, I wish this story had a hilariously poignant ending. In truth I found the pants hanging on a hook in the kids’ bathroom, under a Hogwarts robe of the same black shade, the morning of the show, and that was that. Soul-searching time is over. Time to put on the big-girl black pants and read.

All dressed and ready to go

All dressed and ready to go

The night

I’ve auditioned for a couple of things lately, which has given me a chance to come face to face with what a chicken I’ve become. As a young woman auditioning for a cappella groups in college, I was self-confident to (past) the point of obnoxious. When a group groaned and told me they were tired of “Happy Birthday”–the song they told me to audition with–I said “Give me an A” and launched into a full recitative and aria from the Messiah, and then I turned them down when they called back. (Look, I’m just trying to be real here. I know it’s bad. Besides, I had a spot in the better group.)

So I’ve been surprised by the bundle of nerves that springs up when I poke my turtle head out into the world again. I’m presented with brand new, untried hurdles. Instead of “deep breath, best foot forward,” my self-talk sounds more like “she’s better than me, and oh no she’s better than me too, and what was I thinking” and so on.

I had been through this in the rehearsal process already, but the huge response the audience gave each reader made it all fresh and loud again. “My story isn’t that funny.” “My story isn’t that meaningful.” “My writing isn’t that poetic.” “My story isn’t that relatable.” And then, magically, my self-talk changed, and it said “Really, what are the odds that your story, your writing, your delivery are all the worst, that you’re the one who’s going to bomb when everyone else is doing so well?”

And they were doing so well. Every single woman stepped up and delivered the best reading of her piece yet. I was genuinely thrilled for each one, and it was truly like magic to watch each writer grow a little more expressive, a little more emboldened, sometimes a little more sassy. Every audience reaction, to the funny or the sad, provoked a fist-pumping “Yes!” in my heart. Throughout this process, without my realizing it, I had become a fellow bearer of these women’s stories. Their success was my joy, regardless of my individual performance.

I was second to last to read–the last before our co-producer Tracy brought it to a close. There are not a lot of words to say about it. I don’t know how personal or profound my story sounded to the audience. I laid out there, as best I could, a description of a major life transformation for which motherhood acted as the primary catalyst. (Video to come.) Though I think it was mostly funny, it touched lightly on some of the most vulnerable parts of me. And in response, people laughed, and said “ohhh” and “awwww,” and then, at the end, 500+ people clapped and yelled and cheered. I have gotten criticism and praise for my writing and ideas for 40 years, and I have sung other people’s songs for audiences large and small. But being seen and heard and embraced by a live audience, well that engenders feelings I could not have anticipated and can’t quite describe.

The takeaway

That feeling, it’s a big takeaway, but it’s something I can’t even begin to share or even use, because I don’t know how. So here’s something a little more practical and immediate.

As people began to ask me what my experience was like, I wanted to recommend it to them. I told writer friends in cities with an LTYM, “you should do this!” But it didn’t take long to recall that I have really awesome friends who have stories (everyone has stories), but who aren’t writers. Some, no matter how smart and thoughtful, aren’t even all that great with the written word. Yet I wanted for them that same experience of being seen, and known, and appreciated.

I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I do not click “like” on Facebook unless I am really feeling some serious excitement. I am suspicious of exclamation points. In person, I sometimes do not say hello to an acquaintance because I assume they don’t care about hearing it from me. I am surprised how often I think I’ve said something out loud, but it turns out it lived only in my mind. There are many reasons for this: good, bad, unknowable, idiotic.

Nevertheless since my LTYM experience I am resolved to pay it forward, to push past my scruples or decorum or shyness and give out more totally gratuitous recognition of both close friends and acquaintances. Gratuitous, as in it costs me very little to call out “Hi Jen” instead of smiling and looking down, or to comment “thanks for sharing” when someone posts interesting news. Gratuitous, as in no one need do anything especially amazing to earn it. Who they are is enough.

This is the gift I received, thanks to the effort and support of many people, including LTYM founder Ann Imig, and our Twin Cities co-producers Galit Breen, Tracy Morrison, and Vikki Reich. It is a gift I can try to pass on with very little effort at all.

TL;DR:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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Twenty (Three) Years Ago: Lollapalooza, Pre-Geek Chic, and Love

[The following is an encore presentation. This blog post was previously published elsewhere, but Throwback Thursday photos of a certain leather jacket made me pull it out again.]

Do you remember August 1991?

Twenty years ago I was going to the very first Lollapalooza concert in Chicago. I was working at the Minnesota Daily, and the two other night editors and I decided to go together.

Vocabulary digression: the night editors were the last of the editorial team to see the paper before one of us drove it—drove it!—over to the printer in the middle of the night. A large part of our job was to maintain the integrity of the actual text of the paper once it had gone “Prod Side” (out of the editorial office and into the production office, housed in a completely separate building) and was in the hands of the art directors, advertising people, and other folks who were more concerned with visual appeal than the accuracy of the 4th largest newspaper in Minnesota.

Everyone working on the paper was probably 25 or younger, which explains why it didn’t occur to anyone that if all the night editors left town for the weekend (when the paper didn’t run) and for some reason couldn’t come back by Sunday night, the paper would be in a bit of a pickle.

Luckily, although all of us were brilliant editors and students, none of us were especially wise, and off we three drove in my tiny bright blue Honda Civic hatchback, which had been dubbed The Indigo Chariot by my roommate.

My memories of the trip are hazy, but I have to laugh at the things I remember:

—Chicago Pizza

—Ice-T as a young rapper instead of old actor

—Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction: For most of their set there were 2 girls with no pants dancing lethargically next to Mr. Farrell, as if grinding with a rock star would be the most boring thing they would do all day. I think they did some things that were supposed to suggest they were Maybe Bisexual (ooooh! Edgy!). I remember looking at Perry Farrell and thinking that he looked just like a super-nerdy former high school loser (trust me, I know) who now had the fame and fortune to force models to gyrate next to him in public. It was kind of sad. I’m curious whether they’ve maintained that part of their act 20 years later.

—Living Colour, which I was really into at the time for some reason

—The cute nerdy editor who drove my car a lot of the way. He was a little younger than me, highly geeky, and scrawny in that way that made me feel—at 5’9”, with the hottest, perkiest body I would ever have—more like an older sister than a potential love interest. Still, had I not moved away, who knows? “Geek Chic” was not yet something any sane marketer had considered, but I was totally charmed by this pale, glasses-wearing boy who confessed at the age of 20 that he still liked dinosaurs. (Bitchy young me: “Really? I liked dinosaurs too. When I was FIVE.”) Last I saw he was a city editor for the Onion, so you can see my instincts on the whole “So Nerdy He’s Hot” thing were right on.

—Henry Rollins scolding the crowd for not clapping enough for the Butthole Surfers, who totally sucked.

—The repeated failure of my car to start.

See, you knew where this was headed. In the morning, as we left our hotel bright and early so we responsible young editors could be back in Minneapolis with hours to spare, my car would not start. My beautiful First Car Ever, for many years the only car used among my groups of friends, was dying.

Photographic proof

Photographic proof


We got it to a service station, and their brilliant advice was to drive drive drive drive without stopping, because once I stopped it would not start again without a jump from a kind stranger. So we did just that. We headed out of Chicago and into the prairie until it seemed we would absolutely have to stop for gas. We stopped for gas, made panicked calls to whatever Daily staffers we could find (cell phones? this was 1991, people, there were no cell phones for college students), got a jump, and rolled into Minneapolis just in time for the three of us to do our jobs for the Monday morning paper.

Because we were the very last editorial staff to see the paper, that issue has more than a few inside jokes tucked away referring to our predicament, including a little line art representing my poor hatchback, which needed a fair amount of work before I could drive it off to graduate school a couple weeks later.

Somewhere after midnight we all walked to one of the editor’s apartments and tried to crash there, but we were so wired we stayed up talking all night. I think the other female editor and I flirted aimlessly with Cute Editor Boy, all of us knowing full well that we were the kind of people who went to alt rock concerts and danced like fools, then went home alone to read classic novels and recover from too much smoke and crowd noise and write about it all later.

Sometime before sunrise we walked Editor Boy to his apartment, then went for pancakes. I probably only saw the two of them a handful of times before leaving Minneapolis; there was no point in further developing relationships that were about to end.

The Indigo Chariot was fixed and I drove it, along with my mother, and my step-father and grandfather following in a station wagon, to Ann Arbor. I cried as we drove away: I loved the city of Minneapolis, I loved the music and the theater and the lakes, and I was just starting to figure out, at the age of 21, that there were boys out there who actually kind of liked tall nerd girls. On the way to Michigan, I stopped at the last exit of the Upper Peninsula to call my housemates in my new digs. I lay on my back on the floor of my hotel room and laughed with surprise when a boy answered the phone and identified himself as Eggmaster.

I hadn’t told anyone when I would arrive, so I told Eggmaster that getting him on the phone was the biggest relief of my life, still laughing from exhaustion and now from nerves. “I’m so glad I could be part of the biggest release of your life,” he said, and I don’t know whether he misheard me or decided to mess with me.

I met him a the next day: horn-rimmed glasses, a thin white t-shirt, black motorcycle jacket, black combat boots, long and heavy black bangs covering one of his eyes. I soon saw that his bookcase was full of Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald; I learned that he was a drummer and he loved Rush. Geek Chic indeed, except he was in no way scrawny, and he was —hurray!—a full four inches taller than me. I did not learn his position on dinosaurs. Despite our breathless, giggly phone conversation, we hardly spoke to each other for three weeks, so intense was our shyness and introversion.

Nevertheless, Reader, I married him.

When I read online that today Lollapalooza was marking its 20th anniversary, the incredible sweetness of August 1991, which seems so long ago, came rushing back. Though I am right now listening to my twelve-year-old daughter practice her Bach inventions, I remember another bright young woman who was just waking up to the surprising possibilities life has to offer, amazed that she, too, might have a chance at love, joy, and just a little reckless abandon.

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I Hold the Mermaid’s Hand

I posted this three years ago on the Red Sea homeschool blog, and it is still true about my birthday girl. It’s also as sappy as ever, so if you hate that, look away. I’m not posting for you anyway — I’m posting it for my little mermaid

IMG_1772

No one believes that this girl can be any trouble. (Pictured here in a photo composed by her sister — I can’t remember the legend being enacted.) She goes off into the world and skips and sings and says wise-sounding things to adults. She is rarely found in the center of a knot of kids in trouble, but kids seem to like her all the same.

Then she comes home. Sometimes with wise-sounding words, but often with furious yells or tears, she tells me she doesn’t belong. No place quite fits right, sometimes even home. Some days something sets her off, some days she rolls out of bed already off kilter.

We went through something a bit similar with Violet at a similar age — “I’m tired of being the only one” she said about why she deliberately faked errors in her schoolwork, before homeschooling.

But with Victoria it runs deeper somehow, and the feelings are so much bigger and more intense. It’s not a school thing, it’s just a being thing, and in some ways it’s always been a part of who she is. There is only so much I can do. I can try to match the right phrase to the right time: “Different is wonderful,” “Different is no big deal,” “Everyone feels different,” “I feel different sometimes, too,” and “Different is hard.” Most of the time I have no idea what to do: she is different, and that is hard for her and for me.

Mostly all I can do is be there. Being there with a dreamer is complicated: you don’t know where she is, and half the time neither does she.

Which is why, God help me, this video clip just hit me right where I am living. It is cheesy, schmaltzy, hokey and — Lords of Irony forgive me — so true right now. So although I am slightly embarrassed, I have to share it for anyone else who has one of these dreamy little girls.

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Something for My Second Child

Just as most photo albums have more photos of the first-born than any other children, I suspect first-borns also get more words devoted to them. They have an unfair advantage–ask any younger sibling. First off, they’ve been alive longer, and usually they’re the ones who make childfree people into parents, which is kind of a big deal.

The next child makes for a transition that is a little harder to document. I’ve heard it said that the first child makes a parent, the second child makes a family. As my mom’s only child, allow me to say that this is crap.

However, going about your rounds with two kids in tow is quite different from being the young, hip couple who totes along an adorable baby in pristine, expensive mini couture wherever they want. The second child comes along and you are older, you’re more tired, and the hand-me-downs that survived are more stained. You enter into what we came to call The Fog of the Second Child, which took us a solid two years to get out of–and only then did we realize we had been in it. This is a time of life to get through, not a series of baby-bookable milestones.

I don’t know if there is a consistent personality profile for second-borns, but ours seemed determined to let us know that four years of parenting her sister were totally inadequate preparation for her:

  • She hated the baby swing and sling that her sister loved, and insisted on being carried at all times, approximately 20 hours a day for the first 9 months. Not held. Carried. In motion. On your feet. No sitting, no stopping.
  • She drove our family out of vegetarianism with a lust for animal flesh that was almost unseemly in a toddler. Whole Foods will be forever grateful, as we tried to assuage our guilt with the most humanely raised, most sustainable–most expensive–meat we could find.
I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

  • She’s outgoing, which probably would have made my husband go in for DNA testing did she not look so much like his entire side of the family. She likes to go places and do things with people. And since she is not yet 16, that means I have to go places and do things with people too.
  • She loves clothes, make-up, and popular culture. My older child rode around listening to NPR for the first 10 years of her life, but little sister has a love affair with the radio stations that play the songs that make you say “Wait, he wants her to touch his what?”
The spa birthday party of a 10yo's dreams

The spa birthday party of a 10yo’s dreams

I could go on, but what I’m realizing as I make this list is that if Victoria threw us into a fog when she was born, she was also instrumental in bringing us, me, out into the world not long after that. She enjoys Tinkerbell, My Little Pony, and Taylor Swift without an ounce of worry about whether they are feminist, edgy, intellectual, or cool. She asks the neighbors about vacations and flowers that I didn’t even know they had. She remembers injuries and asks if they’re better, and she makes get well cards for her friends.

One of the hardest things for me to adapt to was her love of holidays and birthdays, things I can hardly remember, let alone plan for. Her birthday hovers around Mother’s Day each year, and as usual I am unprepared, while she has been making plans for months. She tells me about clothes, decorations, treats, and games, while I try to remind her that last year was a great big party–in celebration of turning double digits–and that we agreed at the time that we wouldn’t be able to repeat something so elaborate next year.

“I can still have streamers, right?” she says, “and maybe balloons?” She asks so little it is almost embarrassing that I sometimes struggle to provide it. But after eleven years she has taken us pretty far.

A few years ago I finally caught on that even the smallest recognition of Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Baby Squirrel Day (don’t ask), Pi Day, or my birthday would be enough to satisfy her, and that has made all the difference. If I don’t think of some small thing I’d like on Mother’s Day, she’ll be distressed no end, so I hold off on buying some fancy shampoo, knowing that a trip to the Aveda shop will indulge her love of cosmetics and perfumes as much as it will relieve her need to do something on a day that I’d be otherwise content to let slide by unnoticed.

I sympathize with my friends who have a hard time on Mother’s Day. Some had horrible, cruel mothers, some had wonderful mothers who died far too young. Some people just don’t like a fuss on any day, especially a fuss with them at the center.

In this house, however, we’ll mark the day at least a little. When I’m sniffing my Shampure and eating my strawberries, I will of course be grateful to my husband and my first born, without whom I would not be a mother. But I will reserve a little extra thankfulness this year for my second, whose love of the wider world is a continual source of surprise for me, and it is very nearly contagious.

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The Real Real World

I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.

Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.

Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.

This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”

I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.

I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.

Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.

Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.

I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.

Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.

Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.

This way to the magic.

This way to the magic.

While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.

Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?

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